Author of the forthcoming novel, The Only Living Man With A Hole In His Head, inspired by the true story of Phineas Gage.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A new Barnum attraction arrives in New York

One of most interesting chapters to write, and research, was the time in the early 1850's that Phineas Gage worked in PT Barnum's American Museum in New York. Opened in 1842 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, it was located there until 1865, when it was destroyed by fire. It was not a museum in the sense that most of us would think of a museum, with neatly organized exhibits of exotic fossils or European art or artifacts. Barnum's museum was a collection that included a flea circus, an aquarium, jugglers, ventriloquists, wax figures, scientific instruments, plays, dioramas, enough animals to stock a good sized zoo and of course, his much talked-about exhibits. These included Chang and Eng, the world famous Siamese twins (who together fathered 21 children), Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, the Feegee Mermaid (simply the upper torso of a monkey attached to the lower half of a fish, Tom Thumb (the world's smallest man) and Prince Randian, the Human Caterpillar (who had no limbs at all). People couldn't get enough of these “freaks”.

Into this world walked the formerly quite normal Phineas Gage, trusty tamping iron in hand. Not much is known of this time that he spent working for Barnum, but Dr. Harlow (who had treated him in Vermont) mentions that his patient had traveled with Barnum's circus as well throughout New England, but mostly he worked in New York, where Dr. Harlow stated, Phineas earned spare change by letting visitors observe his brain pulsing underneath the skin of the wound. What a strange scene Phineas must have entered, where one of the most popular exhibits was the “Real Live Zulus from Africa” on display and another the “Aztec children”. Was he accepted as one of them or was he treated as an outcast for being born normal? Considering Phineas's personality change after his injury, he most likely kept to himself. A loner who would soon sail down to Chile to drive stage coaches.

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